Last Friday I went to an ad agency. They're preparing a brief to bring disabled kids "out into the open" in a community campaign run by a major corporation. I might be able to tell you more about that later. But for now, let's stick to my visit to the add agency. I was there with a friend who is also a mother of a child with a disability (we both work as volunteers for ACD NSW). The creative team of this big agency wanted to get a bit of an insight of what life is like as a parent of a disabled kid.
Well, it was kind of difficult to explain to three very creative and clever young people what that's like. Most of the reference points are those where you make comparisons with other parents, and since none of these young people are at that stage in their lives, it was kinda tricky.
It's tricky anyway. You want to give people an idea of how hard things can be. But at the same time make it very clear that our kids are neither charity cases nor burdens. That the burden is the way society responds to their disability. That the true disability is the exclusion by society. The negative language used to refer to people with a disability – and it's all so casually done that people don't even realise how hurtful this language can be. You know what I mean. Terms like "the spastic" or expressions like "don't be a retard" or reducing people to their disability 'the blind boy" or "the spina bifida girl".
So I made one comparison which I often make, one younger people seem to be able to relate to.
I explain that disability is natural. It is one of the many facets of humanity. It is just one of those things that make up diversity of people. Yes, people come in all sorts and shapes. White, black and in-between coloured brown. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, agnostic. Liberal, Conservative, Socialist, Green. Gay, Straight, Transsexual.
Isn't it funny how we have come to accept all those differences with so much more tolerance, especially amongst younger people? Many of them don't give a fiddlers fart about people's sexuality (indeed, many are prepared to experiment themselves with more fluid identities) or political background or religion.
It is, thankfully, no longer ok to use derogatory language to describe people of a different religious or ethnic group than yourself.
Why then, is it still ok to use hurtful language to describe disabled people?
It is, thankfully, no longer ok to ask black people to entre a building through the back door or basement loading dock.
Why then, are wheelchair users supposed to be grateful there even is a back entrance?
Why are ethnic jokes no longer ok, but disabled jokes are?
I think I know partly why. There are many reasons, but there is one that stands out for me. And in the context of the add agency, I feel the need to write about this.
We have become used to seeing people with a different skin colour. Our society has become mixed, we grow up together, got used to each other, realised that we were just all simply people. As "the other" become visible, they become known, and the barrier starts to break down.
Do you remember your primary school books. Pictures full of little blonde, blue eyed kids with traditional names. And then, slowly, slowly, appeared the brown and black faces with different names. One by one. From the token black guy to a mix. My kids' books have Asian, African and European faces all together.
But no disabled kids.
They are just not there. They don't seem to exits. They are invisible.
No wonder then, we get stared at when we go to the shops. No wonder people feel it's ok to make stupid comments, use vile language. No wonder people haven't got the first clue of how difficult it is to get decent services and equipment.
People don't know about us.
Because we don’t exist.
Honestly. We don't.
Or tell me, when was the last time you saw a disabled character in a children's book (and I mean just there, in the background. I'm not even asking for a prime role here).
When was the last time you saw an add on TV with a disabled kids - excluding those for charities and awareness-raising. I mean, an add for MacDonald's. Or breakfast cereal. Or toilet paper for heaven's sake. You know those cute kids, happy faces that seem to look at you everywhere in major department stores or your local supermarket? Ever seen a face with Down syndrome on them?
People with a disability are invisible,
If we want things to change, people to care, we need to become visible. We need to be seen, so we can be heard.
So there is a challenge to all add agencies. Show humanity in all its diversity. Show us.